At the end of the first week of her basketball season, and on a day when most of her running mates were competing in their first cross-country ski meet of the season, Kenai Central senior Allie Ostrander is a national cross-country champion.
Using her baby-moose long legs, superb hip extension, voluminous aerobic capacity, picture-perfect posture and flowing, rhythmic, narrow stride, the wiry 5-foot-1 dynamo strung out and broke a field of the nation’s elite distance runners Saturday under clearing, 52-degree skies on the muddy track at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, Oregon.
Ostrander is the first Alaskan to win Nike Cross Nationals, now in its 11th year.
According to the webcast of the event, 52 girls and boys state champions toed the event’s starting line.
The difference was Ostrander was racing a little over two months after Alaska’s state meet was held in Anchorage, meaning she had to pull off the trick of working back into peak race shape without regular racing in increasingly cold, dark and snowy Alaska.
No other Alaskan has won a national prep cross-country championship.
Nike Cross Nationals is one of two elite, national cross-country races. The other is the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, to be held Saturday.
Athletes typically do one or the other, but Nike Cross Nationals had six of the top 10 girls in the dyestat.com rankings, and five of the top 10 in the Saucony Flo 50.
Dyestat.com’s top runner and Saucony’s top two runners will run at the Foot Locker race, where Kodiak’s Trevor Dunbar was a runner-up in 2008.
Alaska running fans are used to seeing Ostrander wear red and black and burst to the front of the pack, but Saturday she did neither.
Wearing a green “Northwest” top, Ostrander stayed just behind the front of the main pack until the two-kilometer mark.
“The first K was a breeze,” Ostrander told dyestat.com. “It was a pretty conservative start to the race and it just accelerated from there. Building on that speed, it felt great.”
On the podium after the race, Ostrander characterized the race as an acceleration run, and midway through the race she accelerated from the pack along with junior Paige Hofstad of Texas and junior Fiona O’Keefe of California.
O’Keefe, ranked second to Ostrander’s third on dyestat.com and third to Ostrander’s fifth by Saucony, was the top returning finisher at the meet.
“You hit that 3K and it feels really hard but today I was just like, ‘You just gotta hang. You gotta stay there and you just gotta push it and give it everything you have. This is the last cross-country race of your career,’” Ostrander told milesplit.com.
Not surprisingly, whenever Ostrander pushed, O’Keefe would push right back.
“I figured Fiona would be right up there — she’s the top returner from last year, a pretty solid runner and I respect her a lot,” Ostrander told dyestat.com. “I was excited to have her by my side. It was great to have someone push me.”
Four kilometers into the race, O’Keefe could push no more. She would fall off the pace to a fourth-place finish in 17 minutes, 31 seconds, with Ostrander winning at 17:19.
“I tried to pick it up at the 4K and she was just kind of hanging with me so I just kept trying to pick it up,” Ostrander told dyestat.com.
With O’Keefe out of the picture, Ostrander’s main task was to hold off Hofstad, who finished second at 17:26, going up a steep but brief hill before the finish.
But the holder of a record six junior Mount Marathon titles, and veteran of the rugged cross-country courses Alaska dishes out, wasn’t about to get thrown off by a hill.
“I got to the last kilometer and I was like, ‘This is like the end of Mount Marathon. You feel dead but you have it in you to do it,’” Ostrander told dyestat.com. “I just went for it.”
Ostrander then crashed through the tape victorious for the second time in 24 hours, except this time she was awake.
“I did dream that I won,” she told dyestat.com. “I got woke up in the middle of the night and I was like, ‘Oh, man. That was awesome. I feel so relieved. It’s over.’
“And then I was like, ‘Wait, that was a dream.’”
Ostrander has talked about nerves getting the better of her in big races in the past.
She said nerves, along with wind-lashing cold, played a role in her not finishing the state race as a freshman — the only race in Alaska she ever lost.
She also said she did not have a good race in finishing second at the Nike Cross Nationals Northwest Regional in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 15.
Oregon junior Ella Donaghu won that day and was 10th Saturday.
“I talked to a friend after regionals and I was like, ‘I feel like I’m just cursed. I always break at these big races where I want to run my very best,’” Ostrander told milesplit.com.
“He was like, ‘No. You just overthink it. You train at such a high level. You can win this. You can do it and I believe in you.’ That was huge to me.”
One of Ostrander’s friends and training buddies is fellow Kenai senior Jordan Theisen, who spent Saturday morning watching her race online before heading off to a high school ski race.
Theisen said he has kept in contact with Ostrander via text messaging, and sent her some encouraging words before the race.
“I texted her earlier and said, ‘Who are you? Are you a champion?’” Theisen said. “She responded, ‘Oh my gosh, this is unreal! I can’t believe it!’”
But the most encouraging words Ostrander received may have come from someone she has never met.
All the Nike Cross Nationals competitors got letters from Mo Farah, the current Olympic, World and European champion in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. Ostrander said his letter was very helpful.
“Mo Farah wrote us all letters and they said when I went into a race I wasn’t thinking I can win, I was thinking I want to do well and I can do well,” Ostrander told dyestat.com. “So I tried to let that be my mentality because giving everything I had is doing well no matter what the place is.”
Ostrander’s previous big splash on the national scene was finishing second in the 3,200 meters at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational this spring to high school senior Alexa Efraimson, who won Nike Cross Nationals last year and has since turned pro.
In the past year, Ostrander has convincingly stated her case as the top girls prep distance runner in Alaska history by setting state-meet records in the 1,600 meters, 3,200 meters and five-kilometer cross country.
Her story of training in snowy conditions and moose-strewn roads has recently received national attention due to a video profile on milesplit.com, and Saturday she lived up to the hype.
“Expectations, they definitely are a motivation to train harder,” she told milesplit.com. “You know, they can make it really nerve-wracking but pressure also can just make you the best you can be and I think that’s what it did for me today.”
Reach Jeff Helminiak at email@example.com